Basking in our nascent independence

In 1950, more than a million Israelis celebrated the nation’s second birthday.

May 1, 2019 16:32
Basking in our nascent independence

MEMBERS OF Kibbutz Gan Shmuel march on Israel’s second Independence Day, in Hadera in 1950.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

‘Here are the children, drunk with freedom, playing ball in the fullness of their merriment, their hearts aglow with the sun of spring. The eye of the enemy cannot gaze upon them.”

These words written by Gershon Shofman, laureate of the Israel Prize for literature, helped set the tone for the celebration of the second anniversary of Israel’s independence in 1950. Shofman’s poem was included, along with other information, in a government leaflet mailed to every citizen in the young country.

The leaflet, today a collector’s item, arrived well in advance of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day). Since the Hebrew date of the fifth of Iyar in 1950 fell on Shabbat, the festivities were rescheduled for Sunday, April 23.

The little brochure made the citizenry aware of the dramatic changes that had taken place in the country in the two years of its existence. Added to the Jewish population of 650,000 at the end of the Mandate period, it stated, 365,000 immigrants had arrived from every corner of the globe, and 188 new settlements had been built, swelling the total number of communities, large and small, to 510. Incredibly, the number of yehidot diyur (housing units) had more than doubled. In 1948, only 23,000 units existed, but by December 1949 there were 58,000. In 1949, according to the leaflet, some 190,000 people rode on the country’s new inter- and intra-city buses.

While 135,000 pupils attended the country’s elementary and high schools in 1949, that number had grown to 181,000 in 1950. By then, there were 25,000 telephones and 144,000 radios. Also, 80,659 people landed in Israeli airports between May 1948 and December 1949. During that same period, 28,667 traveled abroad by plane.

Bank deposits had almost doubled from 58,500,000 lirot in 1948 to 94,000,000 lirot by January 1950.

On Thursday, April 20, 1950, at noon, tribute was paid to those who had fallen in the War of Independence. The main services were held in Jerusalem at cemeteries on Mount Herzl and in Sanhedria, but in every major city and on many kibbutzim and moshavim, the graves of those who fought and fell were honored. The official proclamation made at the ceremonies read: “Israel pays tribute to her sons and daughters, national heroes, who gave their lives in battle, and in the splendor of their youthful pure existence, bequeathed freedom to their people.”

Later that day, numerous torches were kindled on Mount Zion. Large groups of young and old alike danced around as the shofar was continually sounded from the tower above King David’s tomb. The scene was set for a three-day celebration, although neither schools nor stores closed on Friday or Sunday. An air of festivity was felt throughout the country as citizens prepared for the second birthday of Israel.

On Friday evening, the Kabbalat Shabbat service included the recitation of the half-Hallel just before Aleinu, as per the directive of Chief Rabbis Herzog and Uziel.

That evening at nine, at movie theaters around the country, leading journalists spoke to crowds of thousands about the first two years of the country’s history and prospects for the future.

Since the remains of Theodor Herzl had been reinterred in the country in August 1949, the hill where his grave was located, was named Mount Herzl. With the dreamer of Israel finally in the state which he had envisioned, it was the natural site on which to begin the Independence Day celebrations on Sunday night.

HUNDREDS OF members of Gadna, the military prep program, marched and were joined by Knesset speaker Yosef Sprinzak, who that year began the tradition of kindling a torch used to light hundreds of others on Mount Herzl. As this occurred, cannons were fired in Tel Aviv and Haifa, prime minister David Ben-Gurion and president Chaim Weizmann gave addresses over the radio, and the holiday was officially underway.

In Jerusalem, Zion Square was the focus of unbridled festivities. A dramatic photo taken from a balcony on the opposite side of Jaffa Road captured the memorable sight of a sea of dancing people. (The Zion Cinema was featuring Johnny Belinda – starring Jane Wyman, then Ronald Reagan’s wife – about a deaf-mute.)

Newspaper reports described the overwhelming joyousness of citizens celebrating after two years of fighting for their existence. Though there was hardly any room to dance, at 2 a.m., Ben-Gurion and several of the cabinet ministers made their way to Zion Square, mingled with the crowd, and danced with abandon. No one wanted to sleep on a memorable night like this.

Just a few hours later, at 9 a.m., a race between members of the Maccabi, Hapoel, Elitzur and Betar athletic organizations began. Each team had 70 relay runners. From Jaffa, they ran to Bilu, then to Hulda. From there, they ran to Sha’ar Hagai and finally on to Jerusalem. Maccabi triumphed on the first leg, but then Hapoel moved ahead, capturing the other three segments while recording a winning time of four hours and 50 minutes. The runners were welcomed in Jerusalem by Ben-Gurion at Gan Hashoshanim, where an outdoor reception for government officials and foreign diplomats was being held.

At the same time as the race began, the Yeshurun Synagogue hosted a morning service attended by the chief rabbis and the prime minister, who donned a high hat and formal dress for the occasion. In Rabbi Herzog’s address, he interwove the subject of the independence of Israel into a wider theme of global liberation.

“We stand at the threshold of humanity’s reparation for the great injustice meted out to the Jewish people,” he said. “Just as one good deed leads to another, so will this act of recompense spread throughout the world. We are at the beginning of the redemption of the whole world, which was foretold by the prophets.” At 11 a.m. that Sunday morning, Zalman Shazar, then minister of education, broadcast a message to all schoolchildren.

President Weizmann held a reception at his home in Rehovot where he officially received greetings from the foreign diplomatic corps.

The skies over Tel Aviv on that Independence Day were witness to an exciting aerial display. The Spitfires first flew in formation and then began to perform various maneuvers. One pilot “sideslipped and rolled, climbed and dived,” according to one report. As he did, Tel Avivians hanging onto rooftop radio aerials “ducked down in sheer fright.”

Nearby, in Petah Tikva and Rosh Ha’Ayin, a thousand gift parcels filled with toys, balloons and sweets were showered on schools by planes flying above – veritable “manna” from heaven.

At 3 p.m., a military parade made its way through Jerusalem. The reviewing stand on King George Street was located just past the Yeshurun Synagogue. The streets were bulging with spectators, overflowing onto the sidewalks, anxiously waiting to catch a glimpse of the newest military hardware. A variety of small arms and motor vehicles were indeed shown for the first time – not only to impress the citizenry but also to serve notice to whomever might be watching. The snappy marching of the women’s corps soldiers particularly captured the fancy of the crowd.

That Sunday, April 23, 1950, also marked another milestone in the country’s history. After 16 years of existence in Jerusalem, English-language daily The Palestine Post changed its name and officially became The Jerusalem Post.

The second celebration of Israel’s independence brought people together in a long-remembered event in which spiritual, military and cultural elements blended together to form a unique pageant of Jewish freedom.

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